Tuesday 18 October 2011

Joining the historical dots a guest post by Pippa Goodhart

The most human of all impulses is to create story.  Why?  Because we want life to be a coherent narrative that makes some kind of sense.  As writers of historical fiction, looking back to the past, we are joining dots to make stories.  Those ‘dots’ are the bits of real history, be they firm events or a vaguer feel for a time, and the lines that we draw to join them together are our invention.  If we each took the same collection of historical dots and added our own imaginative lines we’d create different stories, all of which would make their own kind of sense, and none of which are likely to be very close to the factual truth of things.  Scientists and philosophers and lawyers do similar tricks, taking little bits of ‘evidence’ and using them to ‘prove’ narratives and theorems.  How many of them get it right?!  It’s essentially the same process, groping after truths through logic.  But we know that our truths are fictional ones, and don’t pretend otherwise. 
Here is a brief story of how my novel ‘Raven Boy’ (for junior school children) resulted from the discovery of some historical ‘dots’ that I longed to join together with a narrative.
I’d been asked to write a very short story for six year old children about the Great Fire of London (to tie-in with the national curriculum).  I read Pepys’ Dairy for the days of the Fire, wondering how I was going to work this big topic for a young child audience.  Glory be, on being woken (for a second time) by his maid telling him of more than three hundred houses burned to the ground, Pepys, ‘.. made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up onto one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire …etc’  So I had a real child character for my story: Sir J Robinson’s ‘little son’.  But what was he like?  I got in touch with the historians at the Tower and discovered that Sir John Robinson was King Charles the Second’s Lord Lieutenant of the Tower.  The historians knew nothing much about his son, except that there were further Sir John Robinsons down through the centuries, and there’s even one in the present day.  So my boy was also called John, and I wrote about him climbing the Tower to see the Fire with Pepys, and deciding to keep a diary of his own … which is mostly about losing his cat.  So much for that little book, ‘Fire Cat’.  But, because of it, I got a privileged visit to the Tower of London with its illustrator.  We were taken to places where ordinary visitors don’t usually get a chance to go, climbing up onto the roof of the White Tower to try and get an impression of what the view might have been like….except that of course these days you don’t look down on anything at all.  You look up to gigantic office blocks!  But we also got a glimpse inside the house where the Robinsons lived.  And I read signs and pamphlets at the Tower about the myth of how the ravens must stay at the Tower for fear that it, and the monarchy, will fall if they should ever leave.  I read that the birds are protected by a royal decree from the time of King Charles the Second.  

Ordinary, carrion eating, ravens.  It’s a bit like protecting rats by royal decree!  Why on earth did Charles the Second do it?  The answer is that he probably didn’t.  No such decree exists.  Hmm.  But a belief in it does.  That played together with thoughts about the Tower itself (that roof top, that Robinson home, that centre of power full of crown jewels and the Mint and soldiers), the plague trapping and horribly killing so many people within London’s city walls, the Great Fire that destroyed such a swathe of that city, the wars being fought against the Dutch and French at that time, the sound of sea battles clearly heard within London ….and the importance of a raven.  Hmm.  I couldn’t resist reading John Evelyn and biographies of Charles the Second, a history of the Fire, and more, including, of course, just a bit more and just a bit more of Pepys’ Diary.  The fact that each entry is short makes his Dairy so irresistibly just-one-moreish, like sweets!  

And one day I was rewarded with that ‘Hello’ moment that many will recognise; when you know that you’ve met the person who will live and shape your story.  My boy is another real boy in Pepys’s Diary, and I knew at once he was a boy to live an adventure that would join those teasing historical dots, and make sense of that myth about the ravens at the Tower.  Pepys mentions him in connection with another of his visits to the Tower, this time to dine with the Robinsons –
‘No discourse at table to any purpose, only after dinner my Lady would needs see a boy which was represented to her to be an innocent country boy brought up to towne a day or two ago, and left here to the wide world, and he losing his way fell into the Tower, which my Lady believes, and takes pity on him, and will keep him; but though a little boy and but young, yet he tells his tale so readily and answers all questions so wittily, that for certain he is an arch rogue, and bred in this towne; but my Lady will not believe it, but ordered victuals to be given him, and I think will keep him as a footboy for their eldest son.’  

Who was the boy?  I’m with Pepys in that I don’t for a moment believe anybody could lose their way and just wander by mistake through those fortifications and into the Tower.  He was there on purpose.  But what was that purpose?  Aha, I know, I thought.  This boy wants to kill the King!  Why?  How?  When?  And how does a raven come into all this?  Read the story and see!

Pippa Goodhart’s Raven Boy is published by Catnip. ISBN: 978 1846470257
Visit Pippa’s website: www.pippagoodhart.co.uk


alberridge said...

I love this post, Pippa - 'joining the dots' is exactly what it feels like.

Do you find there's almost a 'detective element' in it sometimes, as if we're not 'making it up' but uncovering a story that was already there and simply waiting for someone to find and tell it?

Either way, I think I'll have to read 'Raven Boy'!

Linda B-A said...

I agree, joining the dots - or searching for missing pieces of a jigsaw - is exactly what it feels like. What I think is strange, though, is the process by which we recognise that a particular detail fits the narrative. You call it an 'hello' moment. And you know that it's worked when, subsequently, you can't imagine the story being any other way. I remember a television producer once saying to me (while rejecting draft one) "We don't know we want but we'll know it when we see it." Harsh but true...

Priya said...

Nice post thanks for sharing..

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